Hollywood Flashback: In 1992, Billy Dee Williams Took 'Giant Steps' to TIFF

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Billy Dee Williams

"There was one scene [where] he took his shirt off and the girls in the theater screamed. He had such charisma and was so effortlessly classy," said Mark Hamill of the 'Star Wars' and 'Giant Steps' actor.

When George Lucas’ space epic Star Wars first hit theaters in 1977, the galaxy was missing Cloud City’s Casanova, Lando Calrissian. The debonair character joined the mega franchise in 1980’s Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (subsequently appearing in 1983’s Episode VI: Return of the Jedi) and was made famous by Billy Dee Williams, nicknamed the “black Clark Gable” for his devilish charm.

The Harlem-raised actor had made his theater debut at 7 years old before breaking into Hollywood as a student of Sidney Poitier’s. Williams scored his breakout role in 1971’s Brian’s Song and went on to star opposite Diana Ross in Motown Productions’ Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues, which scored five Oscar nominations.

"The first time I saw Billy was in Lady Sings the Blues. I watched it in a movie theater on Hollywood Boulevard,” recalls Mark Hamill, who has played Luke Skywalker since the first Star Wars and will reprise his role in J.J. Abrams’ Episode VII: The Force Awakens (out Dec. 18).

"There was one scene [where] he took his shirt off and the girls in the theater screamed. He had such charisma and was so effortlessly classy, and he brought that along to our movie. Billy took the framework of what was there in the storyline [for Lando] and brought his wagon-load of charm."

Nine years after Empire Strikes Back, which THR praised as "a worthy successor to the original," Williams landed the role of villain Harvey Dent in another major franchise film, Tim Burton’s Batman. In 1992, a much smaller-scale film, Giant Steps, a Canadian drama centered on the relationship between an aspiring trumpet player and the legendary jazz musician (played by Williams) whom he idolizes, brought him to the Toronto International Film Festival.

Williams, now 78, has since devoted much of his career to television, guest-starring on shows such as Modern Family and General Hospital and reviving his fan favorite Lando character through voice roles in Star Wars-based cartoons. No word yet on whether Williams’ Lando will appear in The Force Awakens, set 30 years after Return of the Jedi and reuniting numerous members of the original cast.

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